At Descent—the first piece of Noémie Lafrance’s to get everyone’s attention, in 2002—the audience gathered at the top of the spiral staircase in the Clock Tower Building on Leonard Street and peered down. Two flights below, a woman flung her torso over the banister. A flight below her, another woman, also with hair loose and arms drowning in the empty dark, did the same, as did another below her, and another and another, for 12 flights in a kaleidoscopic delirium of suicide that would have made Busby Berkeley proud.
Lafrance must have recognized her cinematic flair because, after Descent, the Quebecois Brooklynite began distilling her live performances—of dancers dripping in beeswax under the Brooklyn Bridge in Melt or slaloming the slopes of a Gehry roof in Rapture—into mesmerizing celluloid shorts. Meanwhile, though, the live shows that inspired the films lost focus. Her latest performance piece, The White Box Project, takes place in a white box with open sky (a/k/a a courtyard) behind the Black & White Gallery in Williamsburg. Lafrance continues to conceive choreography principally as a matter of framing, but this time, it lacks evocative power. And when she is not angling her real-life settings into surreal fantasies, you cannot help noticing how dull the movement is, how slack the timing, how naïve the anchoring ideas.
The well-advertised premise of The White Box Project is simple: to turn the viewers into the art. In the walled open-air rectangle, 20 dancers executed one simple move after another, and we got out of their way. Roughly speaking—very roughly—we were mirroring them.
Two dancers inched forward on their behinds, legs splayed out before them. Two did crab walks. Mostly they traveled in herds. They rampaged across the courtyard repeatedly. They congregated in the center to step smart and snap their fingers like the cool cats of West Side Story. They followed the leader along the space’s perimeter and shrieked for no apparent reason. They obeyed instructions to stand, sit, turn, and pretend to smoke a cigarette (this last from the group’s designated smart aleck—every underthought performance seems to have one). I noticed they were enjoying themselves.
However rudimentary the dancers’ patterns, ours were simpler still. We had arrived to see a show because that is what Lafrance does. So it didn’t matter that the dancers were dressed like civilians or had been mingling with us moments earlier—as soon as the action began, we knew our place: on the margins. The mob acted; we reacted. When they plowed through the space, we scattered like grain. When they converged on the wall we were leaning against, we shuffled to the center. They did their routine, and we did ours.
In the course of things, I found myself wondering about what didn’t happen: being turned into a work of art. How would that feel? Then—silly me—I remembered it would feel like dancing. Movement can act on a dancer like memory on the narrator of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. When Marcel dips his petite madeleine into his mother’s tea, “a delicious pleasure” overtakes him, “acting the way love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me.” When a dancer fully absorbs a dance, the dance returns the favor. It distills her down to its essence. She relinquishes ego for something at once more ephemeral and more necessary. I would have liked to have experienced that. But White Box would have had to contain some choreography.
The White Box Project is typical of participatory shows in its diluting the art for the sake of us. (I’d prefer it ignore us for the sake of being good, but anyway.) White Box does, however, abound in the opposite of dancing: us, again, stumbling out of the way of traffic. Lafrance might have worked this half of the polarity. When Marcel descends into his “delicious pleasure,” he writes, “I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.” A bolder choreographer might have subjected us, the dancers’ negative, to those wretched feelings. The hip, beautiful people could have invited us to join in, then disinvited us, again and again. As art’s refuse, we could have grown miserable—had an experience!
As it is, The White Box Project leaves us benignly to our own devices, where we only grow weary.
The White Box Project continues this Saturday, September 24, at 4:30, 5:30, and 6:30 p.m., and on Sunday at 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. with a free screening of select Lafrance films at 8 p.m. on Saturday